As colleges obsess over rankings, students shrug

The main factors in students' school choices might surprise some in higher education.

When US News & World Report debuted its list of “America’s Best Colleges” nearly 30 years ago, the magazine hoped its college rankings would be a game-changer for students and families. But arguably, they’ve had a much bigger effect on colleges themselves.

Yes, students and families still buy the guide and its less famous competitors by the hundreds of thousands, and still care about a college’s reputation. But it isn’t students who obsess over every incremental shift on the rankings scoreboard, and who regularly embarrass themselves in the process. It’s colleges.

It’s colleges that have spent billions on financial aid for high-scoring students who don’t actually need the money, motivated at least partly by the quest for rankings glory.

It was a college, Baylor University, that paid students it had already accepted to retake the SAT exam in a transparent ploy to boost the average scores it could report. It’s colleges that have awarded bonuses to presidents who lift their school a few slots.

And it’s colleges that occasionally get caught in the kind of cheating you might expect in sports or on Wall Street, but which seems especially ignominious coming from professional educators.

The latest example came last week at Claremont McKenna, a highly regarded California liberal arts college where a senior administrator resigned after acknowledging he falsified college entrance exam scores for years to rankings publications such as US News.

The scale was small: submitting scores just 10 or 20 points higher on the 1,600-point SAT math and reading exams. Average test scores account for just 7.5 percent of the US News rankings formula.

Still, the magazine acknowledged the effect could have been to move the college up a slot or two in its rankings of top liberal arts colleges. And so it was hard not to notice Claremont McKenna stood at No. 9 in this year’s rankings, which to people who care about such things sounds much sweeter than No. 11.

“For Claremont, there is I would think a psychologically large difference between being ninth and 11th,” said Bob Schaeffer of the group FairTest and a rankings critic. “We’re a top 10 school,’ (or) ‘we’re 11th or 12th’ — that’s a big psychological difference. It’s a bragging rights difference.”

If it was an effort to gain an edge, it backfired badly. Another popular list, Kiplinger’s “Best College Values,” said Friday it was removing Claremont McKenna from its 2011-12 rankings entirely because of the false reporting. The college had been No. 18 on its list of best-value liberal arts colleges.

Competitiveness may be naturally human, but to many who work with students, such behavior among fellow educators is mystifying. Contrary to widespread perceptions, they say, students typically use the rankings as a source of data and pay little attention to a school’s number.